Each year there are millions of cases of the common cold in the U.S. and anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the population will come down with the flu. Those numbers mean one thing: Keeping your family healthy this winter is serious business.
Luckily, there are many natural ways you can reduce your chances of getting sick. First, start with the basics, says integrative pediatrician Lawrence Rosen, M.D., a member of KIWI’s advisory board: “Make sure everyone in your family is getting enough sleep, exercising every day, enjoying some fresh air, eating well, and managing their stress.” All these things help boost your general health, which is an excellent defense against viruses.
To give you even more protection against illness, KIWI spoke to top experts and uncovered some unexpected ways to fight off colds and flu.
1. Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins
We are constantly surrounded by thousands of potential toxins—they’re in our food, air, water, cosmetics, cleaning products, and more. And these chemicals can damage the very cells and processes that are working to keep you healthy: “When our body’s detoxification system has to deal with a lot of toxins, it gets overwhelmed and is less able to support immune functions,” says Elson Haas, M.D., co-author of the new book Ultimate Immunity: Supercharge Your Body’s Natural Healing Powers. He and co-author Sondra Barrett, Ph.D., suggest taking steps to cut down on toxin exposure by choosing natural home and body products and eating organic foods. It’s also smart to support your body’s detox systems by drinking lots of filtered water, sweating from exercise, and consuming foods high in vitamin C (like oranges) and E (like almonds).
Another way to protect your family from toxins is to regularly open the windows and air out your home. (Yes, even in the winter when it’s cold out!) “We’ve done such a good job of insulating our homes,” says Ray Casciari, M.D., chief medical officer of St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, CA, “that chemicals from our heating systems and VOCs found in household items have nowhere to escape to.” These toxins can damage your mucosa—the lining in your throat and nose that traps germs and is key for flu prevention.
2. Focus on Gut Health
“The gut is our biggest area of interaction with the outside world,” says Vincent Pedre, M.D., author of the upcoming Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. “It’s a giant internal/external space, and because of this, the gut also holds approximately 80 percent of the body’s immune system.” All along the digestive lining, white blood cells help protect us from viruses and bacteria that may try to invade the gut wall and get into our systems. Plus, healthy gut bacteria work to create a “colonization resistance” where they outnumber unwelcome pathogens, secrete antimicrobial agents that control harmful bacteria, enhance T-cell immunity, and more. All of these functions promote a balanced immune system and ensure that our white blood cells are better suited to protect us from the viruses that bring on colds and flu.
The best way to keep your gut healthy—and on the ready to fight off disease—is to eat a clean diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. “The gut is where the consequences of a poor diet wreak havoc on our immune system,” says Dr. Pedre. As a supplement to a healthy diet, you can also support your gut flora with probiotics. The best cold-fighting strains are Lactobacillus acidophilus (most commonly found in yogurt); Lactobacillus rhamnosis GG (which helped reduce the duration of the common cold by two days in one study); Bifdobacterium bifdum (important for preventing constipation, which can bog down your system); and Bifdobacterium longum (the most common species of bifdobacteria, found in both infants and adults). You can look for these strain names on a supplement label. For kids, Dr. Pedre recommends organic Sunbiotics Just 4 Kids! Probiotic Chocolate Hearts ($24, vitacost.com).
3. Consider a Multivitamin
One crucial way to boost immunity is to make sure your body has all the nutrients it needs to function optimally. “A lack of nutrients such as zinc, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin D can impair the function of the immune system,” says KIWI advisory board member Sherry Torkos, pharmacist and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. “Many kids are picky eaters and may not be getting enough of these immune-supportive nutrients. For this reason, I often recommend a good multivitamin for children.” She suggests asking your pharmacist or naturopath for a recommendation as it can vary based on the needs of the child. In general, you’ll want to choose one that’s free of artificial flavors, colors, and allergens. (One we like: Solgar’s U-Cubes, $10, walmart.com.)
4. Make Hand-Washing Easy
It’s no big surprise that hand-washing is crucial to avoiding colds and flu. But, as Dr. Casciari says, kids still aren’t doing it well enough. “The average person touches his face 60 times per hour, and that’s a lot of chances for a virus to get from your hands into your nose, eyes, or mouth,” he says. The key with kids is to make it easy for them to wash up. He suggests putting stools in every bathroom so they can reach the sink and soap and keeping an abundance of clean towels nearby. You should also stick to traditional soap and warm water, adds Dr. Rosen, since research has shown that the triclosan commonly found in antibacterial soap can negatively affect the immune and hormone systems.
Torkos also suggests chatting with your child about why all this washing is so important—and keeping the message simple. “We got a book for my son called Germs Are Not for Sharing,” she says. “We got it when he was two and read it to him, and now that he’s five he reads it to us.” Singing a song like the “The ABC Song” or “Happy Birthday” while washing can make the experience more enjoyable and also help kids understand the length of time they should spend scrubbing.
5. Have Some Fun
Although it may seem counterintuitive, cold and flu season is not the time to forgo getting together with friends. “We don’t know exactly why, but an active social life does seem to be important to preventing disease,” says Dr. Casciari. The link—which is likely related to stress reduction—is backed up by an increasing body of research. For example, in a landmark Carnegie Mellon study, researchers exposed a group of students to a virus and then waited to see who came down with the sniffles. The students with the most active social lives were the least likely to get sick. And the fun doesn’t stop there: Other studies have shown that humor and laughter may raise the levels of infection-fighting antibodies.
Eat (and Drink) Your Medicine!
Eating a variety of clean foods—including lots of fruits and vegetables—is the best way to keep your body in top shape for fighting off infections, says Dr. Casciari. And although many healthy foods and beverages have properties that help your body function optimally, these are some of the strongest immunity boosters:
Beans Legumes offer a rich source of zinc, which can reduce the duration of colds, says Torkos.
Black Elderberry Extracts of this fruit have been shown to support the immune system, says Torkos. She recommends Sambucol for Kids ($13, sambucolusa.com), which has a nice berry favor.
Cabbage This veggie is high in cysteine, which the body uses to make immune-strengthening glutathione, says Jonathan Steele, R.N., a holistic nurse in Scranton, PA. Other good options are caulifower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
Garlic This potent herb contains compounds that can help support immune function, according to Torkos. In one study, people who took a garlic pill (as opposed to a placebo) every day for three months had fewer colds. (No wonder it’s been used as a natural antibiotic for centuries!)
Green Tea Several studies have shown that green tea has antibacterial properties, and the extra hydration also helps: “When the mucus membranes in your nose and throat dry out, it can make it easier for viruses to enter the body,” says Torkos.
Leafy Greens In addition to being high in vitamin D, green superfoods contain many beneficial substances including proteins, protective phytochemicals, and healthy bacteria that protect you against disease and illness, says Torkos. Spinach, kale, and collard greens are good options!
Milk Vitamin D is one of the most important nutrients for immunity function, says Dr. Casciari, and many kids don’t get enough—especially in the winter. He suggests that kids drink at least one glass of low-fat milk a day.
Shiitake MushroomsThese are another good source of vitamin D, according to Torkos. Plus, a recent study from the University of Florida showed improved immunity in people who ate a cooked shiitake mushroom every day for four weeks.